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Chargers' Austin Ekeler knows firsthand importance of offseason for UDFAs

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Austin Ekeler can't stress the importance of an NFL offseason program and organized team activities enough.

The Los Angeles Chargers running back knows all too well how valuable spring and summer repetitions have been to his career.

"I don't know, honestly, if I would have made the team if I didn't have OTAs," said Ekeler, who joined the Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2017 from Western State Colorado. "For me, I needed OTAs to go out there and I'd try 100%, but I needed to go out there and mess up because I went and messed up and I was like, OK, these are the things that I need this next month to go work on."

In March, after proving himself through three seasons, Ekeler signed a four year, $24.5 million contract. He will be the Chargers' starting running back this season.

Ekeler can't overstate how devastating this unconventional offseason could be to the careers of many undrafted players, including the 19 undrafted free agents signed by the Chargers in April, as the offseason program was forced onto smart screens because of the coronavirus pandemic and on-field OTAs were canceled.

"It's so rough," Ekeler said. "It's honestly pretty sad just as far as how unfortunate it is for these guys to have an opportunity, the opportunity is already small, but now it's even smaller."

Undrafted rookies receive most of their offseason reps during rookie minicamp, which teams held virtually this offseason. Another half-dozen or so reps, according to Ekeler, come during one hour, 45 minute practices during organized team activities. By the time training camp rolls around, the reps dwindle even more as starters and backups prepare for the season.

But this offseason has provided instruction only through a screen, as virtual playbooks, tutorial videos and on-screen conversations have dominated learning.

There has been no sanctioned time for on-field instruction.

Chargers coach Anthony Lynn has placed an emphasis on getting to know each rookie personally, so when they eventually make it onto the practice field, no one feels like a stranger and practice can operate smoother.

"I just feel like when you can have a relationship with a player, you can coach him in any kind of way," said Lynn, who has emphasized asking questions so coaches can drill down on their football IQ through virtual meetings.

Ekeler voiced concern that regardless of how much a rookie studies this offseason, that training camp will be difficult.

"They're going to be smacked with all this information and the mental game right now, in Zoom meetings, it's nowhere near seeing it actually on the field," Ekeler said.

Lynn openly pondered about what might have become of Ekeler, who had 1,550 scrimmage yards and 11 touchdowns last season, if he didn't receive offseason opportunities as a rookie.

"What if Austin Ekeler didn't get these reps in minicamp and OTAs, would he be on our roster right now?" Lynn asked. "So guys like that, these rookie minicamps and OTAs, meant a lot to."

Last season, 460 undrafted free agents made a Week 1 NFL roster, which accounted for 27% of NFL players, and amounted to an average of 14.4 undrafted free agents per team, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

In 2019, Lynn played 13 undrafted rookies in a Week 1 overtime victory over the Indianapolis Colts. In his 2017 debut as Chargers coach, Lynn played 16 undrafted rookies.

"It's going to be pretty hard this year," Lynn said about the chances of an undrafted free agent making the roster. "There may be some good [players] who are overlooked because they didn't get those reps."

Ekeler and cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who signed a two-year, $17 million deal in free agency in March, are the Chargers' most notable undrafted players who overcame considerable odds to earn NFL roster spots.

Harris wears his undrafted status proudly.

"It's just part of my story to be able to relate to guys," said Harris, who earned a Super Bowl 50 ring, is a four-time Pro Bowl selection and has hopes of earning a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "They understand that nobody gave me anything, that I had to go earn it."

There have been 235 undrafted players, including 11 last season, who have earned Pro Bowl honors since the 1970 merger, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Seventeen members of the Hall of Fame went undrafted, as three more (Cliff Harris, Donnie Shell, Ed Sprinkle) wait to be inducted with the 2020 class.

Harris and Ekeler have committed themselves to helping undrafted rookies through this uncharted offseason.

"I want to teach all the young guys as much as I can," Harris said. "I want to be an open book for any player there and I feel like I got a lot of experience on the field and off the field to be able to help and guide these guys for sure."

Said Ekeler: "I'm just telling them, straight up, how I did it, my mindset going through this and how they're going to have to take that even further."